One night in 1869, in the small city of Warrensburg, in the US state of Missouri, a hunting dog called Old Drum wandered onto the neighbour’s farm. The dog, owned by one Charles Burden, was shot dead by Burden’s neighbour and brother-in-law, Leonidas Hornsby, who had days earlier warned that he would shoot the dog if it ever came into his land.
Heart-broken Burden decided to sue Hornsby and eventually the case went up to the state’s supreme court. Burden hired a famous lawyer, George Graham Vest, a former Missouri congressman and senator and retired judge. The case is well documented in American literature because of Vest’s famous final statement to the court, which was a great piece of oratory eulogising poor Old Drum.
This is part of what Vest, a well-known orator — a skill which helped him win elections — said in his eulogy: “The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world — the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous — is his dog.” The bench was so moved it ruled in favour of Burden and awarded him $50 in compensation — nearly $1,200 (Dh4,404) in today’s money. Old Drum even got his own bronze statue in the centre of the town. And the phrase “a man’s best friend is his dog” went on to become an enduring legacy of the lawyer, George Graham Vest, who died in 1904.
‘History is written by the victors’
But this widely used phrase is not the only memorable quote, attributed to him. He is also credited with another famous quote: “History is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.”
Vest of course should know better, because he was a key player in the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865 between the northern states, which were pro-Union and the southern states, which had declared secession from the union to form the Confederate States of America.
One key reason of the conflict was the union’s decision to end slavery. The agricultural south opposed the move because almost all the workers in the plantation were slaves — African Americans. The south of course lost the war.
In history, as in life, there is no absolute truth. But there exist countless distorted versions of events narrated by men.
Ironically, Vest, the dog lover, and the seemingly liberal politician, was on the losing side. He actually was a strong advocate of slavery. He fought in the war to keep his fellow human beings as slaves as much he did in court defending the right of Old Drum, the poor foxhound.
He was so bitter when they lost the war; he wrote his now eternal quote that history is always written by the victor. To his satisfaction though, I would guess, African Americans continued to be denied the right to be treated as equals in the US as the common law and practices seem to have been written by the losers — perhaps by disciples of George Graham Vest and his fellow confederate politicians.
For America to right centuries of wrongs done to its minorities, the country needs to go beyond the rhetoric of presumed greatness, liberty and equality the likes of George Graham Vest are fond of.
Victors’ version challenged
Meanwhile, history remains as is, written by the victors, unless we agree to revisit it. Today’s world, the world of George Floyd and other victims of racism, has been structured on the pillars of historical versions of events often written, and sometimes made up, by those who won.
Many tragic events have been painted nicely in the history book by triumphant kings and their historians. That includes European colonialism, Britain’s occupation of India and the Middle East, the domination of the Ottoman Empire over the Arab region, America’s wars and the Armenian massacre among many other examples.
Part of the current anti-racism protests is to challenge the victors’ version of what has become a universal view of the world. Removing statutes of famously notorious figures, who are no doubt admired by some, such as Christopher Columbus in the US, is not attempt to rewrite history but a call to challenge it, to rethink it and ultimately perhaps rectify the unfair treatment of those who tragically lost and thus were denied the right to tell the story from their perspective.
The anti-racism protests should be a defining moment that forces the idea to look again with a sceptical eye at the widely accepted but hugely distorted human history.
Leopold II was the king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, coincidently the same period when our friend, the dog-lover, pro-slavery politician Vest fought hard to keep the slaves in his Missouri plantation. Leopold is considered by many in Europe as a great king. But for the almost 10 million innocent people he massacred in cold blood in the Congo he was nothing but a ruthless butcher.
Like other European colonial adventures of that era, Leopold attacked and occupied what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1884 to 1907. American historian, Adam Hochschild, called Europe’s occupation of Africa as “the largest single land grab in history, and a “bloody business” as he described it in his book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, published in 1998.
The invention of inflatable bicycle tyre in 1887 led to the tragic misfortune of the Congo, he wrote. The invention created unprecedented demand for rubber, and the Congo’s rainforests of the Congo is full of wild rubber.
Leopold’s evil mind came up with “a system of terror in which entire Congolese villages were forced to harvest rubber or face death” by the Belgian army. Women and children were kept hostages, and “many of them starved to death” while the men were sent to gather a monthly quota of rubber. Many of those men worked themselves to death in the hope of saving their families. Anyone who tried to escape was shot dead.
Few days ago, Leopold’s 150-year-old statue was removed from a public square in Antwerp by anti-racism protesters. Other statues of notorious historical figures have similarly been removed in the US and England by the protesters.
In history, as in life, there is no absolute truth. But there exist countless distorted versions of events narrated by men, just like Leopold and Vest. I would like to think that the recent protest was not just about the tragic death of George Floyd — which is by itself a crime worth protesting. I like to think it is more of a global scream to revisit human history — in the West, in the East and in our region too. The anti-racism protests should be a defining moment that forces the idea to look again with a sceptical eye at the widely accepted but hugely distorted human history. Then perhaps George Floyd and other victims of history would get real justice.